WEST OCEAN CITY, MD. -- From this side of Isle of Wight Bay, one can see the lights of Ocean City illuminating carnival rides, motels and restaurants. But here, a mile across the bay, the lights shine on rusty masts and rigging of steel trawlers and clam boats, on trees and an empty, sandy shore.
For the estimated 1,500 people who live year-round in this residential waterfront community surrounding an industrial harbor just outside the area's biggest sea-side resort, West Ocean City is an escape from chaos -- a quiet haven for Ocean City workers to make their homes, and for commercial fishermen and seafood workers to make their living.
It is the part of the Ocean City area few beachgoers ever see, tucked away to the west of the ocean surf, and just north of Assateague Island. It is connected to Ocean City by the Rte. 50 bridge, spanning the lower end of the Isle of Wight Bay.
But West Ocean City has suddenly become the fastest growing area of Worcester County. The completion of a new sewage treatment plant opened up thousands of building lots that previously could not be used. Town houses are being built. Two huge housing developments are planned along the road through town to Assateague.
Businesses are taking advantage of the availability of land here as compared to Ocean City. New restaurants, shops and gas stations have opened in the last two years. Almost all the hotels and motels are expanding. The big White Marlin Mall opened last winter. And two weeks ago, Ocean City extended its shuttle bus routes across the bridge to West Ocean City.
"There's simply going to be a lot of growth in West Ocean City, now that the sewerage is out here," said Anne FautLeRoy, executive director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce. "We're certainly going to see more stores, more little businesses. That's already happening near the harbor, with a bunch of little shops that have just popped up."
Although they are concerned, it would be wrong to say the people of West Ocean City are alarmed. The speed and size of development here pales in comparison to the sort of growth seen in Washington's suburbs. But this community is undergoing more dramatic changes than it has since the harbor was built and the fishing industry began in 1937.
Indeed, there are still those in West Ocean City who remember when the area was woods and farmland, with no access to the sea. Fishermen launched skiffs off the Ocean City beaches because they were cut off from the ocean by sand dunes that joined Ocean City to Assateague to the southeast of West Ocean City. In August 1933, a hurricane blasted through Ocean City and cut the deep inlet at the south end of town. Within four years, entrepreneurs used dynamite to blast out a harbor for West Ocean City, and a fishing industry was begun.
Today, about 30 large fishing boats work out of West Ocean City. Some dredge surf clams -- the big clams whose shells become ashtrays in seaside cottages -- from the floor of the Atlantic off Ocean City. Others follow the fish as far south as Puerto Rico and as far north as Nova Scotia. On the south side of the harbor, tractor-trailers pull into Martin's Seafood Co. to load fish and clams bound for the dinner plates of New York and New England, as well as the Campbell's Soup Co.
The life for people who live here is one of hard work often overshadowed by the frivolity of a beach resort. Although clams and large fish are getting scarcer in inshore waters, "there's still work to be done," noted Capt. Harold J. Martin, who was working on his clam boat's dredging equipment one recent afternoon. He said he and other fishing boat captains now sail farther from land to find their catch, and sail in rougher weather. Partly as a result, about one West Ocean City fishing boat is lost each year, usually without loss of life.
"The seafood business is tough," he said. "You aren't relying on people like they do in Ocean City, as much as what is coming out of the ocean."
In recent years, increasing numbers of workers from Ocean City have moved across the bay to live near the fishermen in West Ocean City, where the land is cheaper and the pace of life much slower. In the section of West Ocean City north of Rte. 50, many of Ocean City's big moneymakers -- the builders, hotel and motel owners and amusement park operators -- have created a neighborhood of large, elegant houses called Captain's Hill.
"I liked it the way it was," said Bill Wimbrow, a marine mechanic whose shop on the edge of the harbor is an after-work gathering spot for many business people in the area. "I still like it the way it is today, but I can see where the growth can just do it in." He complained that many newcomers will start demanding services like water, sewerage, street lighting and entertainment that will change the atmosphere of West Ocean City.
"They move here to get away from the city," he said, "and then they want to create a city here . . . . Rte. 50 is now a continuous go-cart track."
"Ocean City, I guess, has grown to the point where they have difficulty building and developing," noted John Urich, a real estate broker who does business in West Ocean City. "Where can you go? I think Ocean City has kind of run out of space."
While favorable interest rates and the new sewer system are the immediate causes of business and developer interest in West Ocean City, Urich said, "It all has to do with the idea that these people can benefit from the overload in Ocean City. We now have the amusements and the mall. There will probably be some entrepreneurs coming in and putting up a waterslide or two as time goes by."
The two big new go-cart tracks in West Ocean City prove that tourists will venture out of Ocean City, FautLeRoy said. "They come out here in droves." But FautLeRoy also noted that West Ocean City is on the main road to nearby Assateague Island, where the wild ponies sport and play, and is in a good position to cash in on the numerous visitors there.
Many people here say West Ocean City is becoming more attractive to tourists and will do more to cater to them. But they also said that it could never pose a threat to Ocean City.
"West Ocean City is a fast-growing area," said Ocean City Mayor Roland (Fish) Powell. "But people want to be on the beaches and on the ocean . . . . People can fault Ocean City all they want because of the traffic problems, but there is traffic because people want to be here."
And while their community may get more crowded with houses and tourists, people working around the harbor said that the fishermen will keep on fishing. "It gets in your blood," said Harold Martin. "I'm not sure whether it's good for you or not, but I don't expect people will change."